In the Depths of Darfur

The United Nations describes the ongoing tragedy in Darfur as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls it “little short of hell on earth.”

Muzdaleta gently rocks her four-month-old twin sons while she sings them a lullaby. They have been living at Murnei Displaced Persons’ Camp in West Darfur since shortly after the boys’ birth. The babies are severely malnourished and suffer from respiratory infections, and Muzdaleta has bullet wounds in her upper arm and shoulder.

It was early morning when the militia attacked our village,” she recalls. She and her infant sons were living with her parents and younger brother. Her husband had died from malaria just two months earlier.

I was still sleeping when I heard the shooting,” she continues. “I ran outside to see what was happening and saw my brother get shot and fall to the ground. I hurried back into our hut, and a bullet must have come right through the walls because my mother was lying dead on the floor. I had no idea where my father was; he must have gone outside to look for me.”

During the flurry of bullets, Muzdaleta herself was hit twice. Not only was she bleeding from the gunshot wounds, but her twins had been born just three days earlier, and she was still recovering from the birth. Yet Muzdaleta knew she had to act quickly. “I had just enough time to put my babies on a large straw platter and then quickly get out of the hut. There was no time to look for my father,” she recounts. “I fled my village, with the platter in my arms. There were many others, too, screaming and running in desperation. We saw our huts, food stocks, fields, and the entire village being burned down behind us.”

As Muzdaleta was fleeing her home, she was attacked by women from the militia, who kicked her and whipped her with sticks until she was out of the vicinity of the village. She walked for a week through the scrubland with her babies in her arms, foraging for food and living mainly on grass seeds, wild berries and leaves. Finally she arrived at Murnei Camp, bearing no possessions other than the clothes she was wearing and the platter that carried her two sons.

I don’t know what happened to my father, where he is right now, or if he is even alive,” Muzdaleta utters tearfully. “I have no money, no family for support, and no means with which to earn an income.” Like the tens of thousands of other displaced Darfuris who have come to Murnei, she is now relying on outside aid workers and humanitarian organizations for food and other necessities of life.

Attacked and Brutalized

As tragic as Muzdaleta’s experiences are, the horrendous truth is that her story is not unique. According to the latest United Nations estimates, there are 2.4 million “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) in Darfur, Sudan’s westernmost region. The majority of them live in one of 150 IDP camps in the province, but some are hiding out in rural areas away from the villages or have migrated to host families in urban areas.

Most if not all of Darfur’s IDPs have faced horrors similar to Muzdaleta’s. They lost their homes and livelihoods, witnessed brutal killings of family members, and were driven out of their villages, which were then ransacked and destroyed by the militia.

The civilian destruction, particularly of the villages, has been overwhelming,” says Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and a Sudan researcher and analyst. The assessments from his contacts in Darfur are that 90 percent of the villages in the region have been burned to the ground. Before the militia came along, these were agricultural communities. In many villages, militiamen stuffed human and animal corpses into the wells to pollute the water supply, making the land virtually uninhabitable.

These people are all farmers or herders,” Reeves says of the displaced villagers. “Now they have no means to earn a living. Not only have they been forced off their land; their seed stocks, agricultural implements and cattle have all been looted or destroyed.”

Most of the attacks happened in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. Typically militiamen would come on camels and horses, encircle a village, and then just start shooting. Often there were simultaneous air attacks from planes and helicopters, or ground attacks from land cruisers and tanks.

Reeves puts the total number of villagers who have died in Darfur at nearly 400,000. Most of those killed during the attacks were men and boys. Countless numbers of women were raped, and many young children were abducted. “Those who were able to escape fled with none of their belongings, nor were they able to bring food or water,” says Reeves. “The militia cut access to water sources and made holes in people’s jerricans to prevent them from taking water with them. With the hot desert climate, many died of thirst during the escape, especially the more vulnerable ones like the elderly and children.”

Often as not, families became separated during all the commotion. Gordon Weiss, spokesperson for UNICEF, spent the month of November 2004 touring IDP camps in Darfur. He talked to a seemingly endless number of people who had lost track of loved ones during the attacks and who, a year and a half later, still had not located them. He explains what typically happens: “The family is awoken from their sleep by the sound of gunfire. The father runs outside and sees his sister’s house being attacked, so he races over there. The oldest son runs out the door to try to round up the family’s cattle. The mother and the younger children run off into the bush. The shooting continues, flames are erupting everywhere, and everyone in the village starts running off in different directions. Maybe the oldest son and the father can find the mother, but maybe they can’t. Most likely the son and the father are killed.”

The attacks against the villages began in February 2003 after two rebel groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), launched an insurgency against the Sudanese government. The rebels, who are black Africans, accused the Arab-dominated government of oppressing the blacks in favor of the Arabs. The government’s response was to organize and arm an Arab militia, the Janjaweed, which would carry out a campaign of violence and forced displacement against the local civilian population in Darfur (which the Sudanese government presumed was supporting the insurgents).

The Janjaweed militia, along with the Sudanese government’s regular armed forces, have been forcing people from their villages for more than two years now,” Reeves says. “Their purpose in doing so is to ensure that these people will never be able to return.”

Harsh Realities

In addition to the IDPs, another 200,000 Darfuris have taken refuge in Chad. Whether uprooted Darfuris make it to a refugee camp in Chad or an IDP camp in Darfur, life is anything but easy. “Even setting aside the issues of war and genocide, this region is one of the most uninhabitable places on earth,” observes Gerald Martone, director of emergency response for the International Rescue Committee.

The majority of the IDP and refugee camps are in or on the fringes of the Sahara Desert. The area is prone to blistering temperatures, torrential rains during the summer months, and strong windstorms year-round. “The wind tears up a lot of the tents that the people live in, including the large tent structures we’ve set up to use as clinics and feeding centers,” Martone says.

Most of the people though, particularly in the IDP camps, do not even have actual tents. They get by with homemade shelters made of burlap pieces, plastic bags and plastic sheeting stretched over branches. “Sometimes they have to walk 7 or 8 hours to find enough twigs to make a shelter,” says Mamie Mutchler, human rights advocate for Refugees International. “The plastic sheeting has been supplied by international relief groups. It’s more sturdy than burlap or plastic bags, but unfortunately there’s not usually enough for everyone.”

On average, between 10,000 and 20,000 people live at the refugee and IDP camps, but some of the latter have as many as 100,000 residents. All of the camps are crowded, with as many tents as possible set up in relatively small geographic areas. When aid workers come by with food, medications, and supplies such as blankets, soap, buckets, mats and tent poles, there is rarely enough to go around.

Each day camp residents have to go on long walks to collect firewood (which they burn for cooking and as a heat source in the evenings when it gets cool), and wait in long lines to fill up their jugs at the camp water pump. Other than that, there’s not a lot to do.

Camp life is a very bleak and dreary existence,” Martone says. “This is especially hard on the children, who need stimulation and structure for proper development.” He estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the camp residents are children aged 18 and under. Relief agencies have come in and set up makeshift classrooms at some of the camps, but even at these locations, there isn’t enough space for all the children.

Fearing Their Protectors

Inhabitants of the IDP camps have added concerns relating to security, limited food supplies and disease control. “The IDPs are surrounded by Sudanese government police and Janjaweed, who make frequent attacks on people who leave the camps,” says Mutchler. Women and girls leaving the confines of the camp to look for food or firewood face the danger of being abducted, shot or raped. Her sources on-site in Darfur estimate that three to five girls (typically between the ages of 12 and 15) who live in the camps are raped each day.

The people are afraid to go outside the camps,” she says. “It’s really a paradox, in that the police are there to protect them, yet they’re the ones who removed them from their homes to begin with, and they’re the people who have them living in fear right now.”

It’s really a paradox, in that the police are there to protect them, yet they’re the ones who removed them from their homes to begin with.” 

Mamie Mutchler, human rights advocate for Refugees International

The Darfuri people are superb foragers,” Reeves remarks. Under different circumstances, they would be going outside the camp and foraging for roots, tubers, grains and other edible vegetation. However, he says, “because of the insecurity created by the Janjaweed, they’re slowly dying of starvation.”

It’s also becoming increasingly difficult for the World Food Program (WFP) and private relief agencies to make food deliveries to the various IDP camps. “The security has deteriorated so much in recent months that aid agencies are not able to reach a lot of the displaced populations within Darfur,” Martone explains. Armed bandits have been ambushing aid convoys. Both rebel forces and the militia have set up roadblocks in certain locations within Darfur, making it impossible to travel to those areas.

The areas under the control of the rebels are the hardest to access,” says Francis Deng. A Sudanese national, Deng was representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on internally displaced persons from 1992 to 2004 and is currently a research professor of international politics, law and society at Johns Hopkins University. He has also served as Sudan’s ambassador to Canada, the Scandinavian countries and the United States, and was minister of state for foreign affairs for Sudan in the 1970s. “From the perspective of the Sudanese government,” he explains, “having relief organizations go in and provide food and assistance to civilians who are close to the rebels may mean that they’re actually supporting the rebels.” That’s why the government may prohibit relief organizations from going into certain parts of Darfur, he says.

Ironically, the rebels themselves can sometimes make it difficult for relief workers to get aid to the IDP camps. “The rebels want to keep their territory under their control,” notes Mutchler. “They tend to see aid agencies as potential government spies, so they may deny them access for that reason.”

UN figures claim that the WFP was able to reach only 40 percent of their targeted IDPs in November 2004. Those who were reached weren’t always given enough food to survive on, or they may have received only raw grain. Not surprisingly, malnutrition is a serious problem in the IDP camps. According to UN estimates published in March 2005, 10,000 Darfuris die each month from starvation and disease.

In most of the camps, there are serious sanitation problems caused by lack of toilet facilities or places to wash. “Very few of the IDP camps have latrines or sanitary facilities of any sort. The people just relieve themselves wherever they are, and this creates very serious problems with contamination of water,” says Galen Carey, director of advocacy and policy for World Relief, based in Baltimore, Maryland.

Add to this the fact that people are closely crowded together, they’re stressed, and they’re not getting the nutrition they need, and the probability of contagious disease outbreaks is very high. “Already, there have been cases of cholera, hepatitis, respiratory infections, dysentery, diarrhea and malaria at most of the camps,” says Smith College analyst Reeves. “These could all become explosive problems at any minute.” Meanwhile, the number of IDPs in Darfur and of Darfuris heading for Chad continues to grow, he says, resulting in an increasingly desperate situation.

The Search for Solutions

What can be done to help the people of Darfur? At the start of the conflict, “many were thinking there would be some type of peace agreement that would give more autonomy to Darfur, and that would form a basis for ending the fighting. But now, most Darfuris no longer believe that’s going to happen,” Martone observes.

It’s also unlikely that the living conditions in the IDP camps are going to improve anytime soon. Central to the problem is what can legally be done for the IDPs. “A nation’s government has the primary responsibility to protect and assist its citizens,” says Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and codirector of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement. “But if a government is unable or is unwilling to do this, to what extent does the international community have a right to come in? That is being debated now.”

This is a relatively new issue for the international community. Prior to the last decade of the 20th century, there were very few IDPs in the world. “Starting around 1990 there were many civil wars, and it was becoming apparent that they were producing twice as many IDPs as refugees,” Cohen says. At the request of the UN, Francis Deng, in collaboration with a team of international legal experts, developed a legal framework called the “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.” Deng explains: “These principles are based on human rights laws, humanitarian law and analogous refugee law. They are not legally binding, but they are based on binding principles, and so they have a wide prominence.”

The Guiding Principles underscore that governments have primary responsibility for their own displaced populations. But if they fail to discharge those responsibilities, the international community has a right to become engaged. “International involvement can range from diplomatic dialogue and negotiating access to bring in food and supplies, to political pressure and economic sanctions,” says Deng.

Among Deng’s challenges was coming up with a system for IDPs similar to the one for refugees. One suggestion was to create a special agency to help the IDPs address their issues, just as refugees have the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to protect them. Another possibility was to enlarge the UNHCR’s mandate to include IDPs. In the end, the United Nations settled on a collaborative approach. Under this system, all the international agencies in the field are expected to work together, coordinated by the UN emergency relief coordinator. “It’s still developing and does not operate as effectively and comprehensively as it should,” Deng admits, “but it is a step in the right direction.”

In the meantime, the world waits to see what will happen in Darfur. “What is happening is a human tragedy of enormous proportions,” stresses Carey of World Relief.

But not only are the lives of millions of Darfuris on the line; what’s happening in Darfur is having a deleterious effect on neighboring countries. These kinds of conflicts rarely stay contained within national borders. “People caught up in civil wars without the basic necessities of life not only disrupt the stability of their own countries but also undermine regional and international security,” says Walter Kälin, who replaced Deng at the UN in October 2004. Conflict emanating in the Sudan has spilled over into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. “Countries that are succumbing to civil war and internal displacement can also become breeding grounds for terrorism, which obviously can affect the whole world,” Kälin adds.

Wishing and Hoping

Muzdaleta, the woman with the two infant sons, says her biggest wish is that peace will come so that she and her children can go back to their village. “I lived there my whole life, and so did my father and grandfather. We raised goats and donkeys and had a plot of land where we grew sorghum and beans. We didn’t have a lot by Western standards, but it was a very peaceful place to live,” she says. “My hope is that my sons can have the same thing.”

What happens in Darfur is an issue the entire world should be concerned about—for the sake of international stability, and for the millions of Darfuris, like Muzdaleta and her young sons, whose future is certainly in jeopardy.